When I started breaking down film of the top quarterback prospects of the 2020 NFL Draft, I saw a lot to love in Joe Burrow. He could throw with great timing, placement, and he could create plays down the field with his ability to scramble while keeping his eyes up.
I noticed, however, that he made a lot of back shoulder throws on deep balls in situations that didn't seem to make sense. This led to the false narrative that Burrow has a weak arm. It was an easy conclusion for people to reach, but it didn’t add up. Sure, it looked as though his deep passes simply topped out on some plays, but he could hit receivers deep in stride and demonstrated it on multiple occasions.
It was quite the conundrum, and I was perplexed. I could see the evidence that he had the arm strength, and didn’t understand why he didn’t hit more receivers in stride.
So what do I mean by situations where it didn’t make sense? Here is what I was always taught in a nutshell.
If you have an outside vertical route and the corner is playing loose (Cover 3, Cover 4, Loose Man, etc) it becomes a comeback. There is no check or audible. The quarterback and the receiver both see it and make the adjustment without communicating with each other.
You can also do this during the course of the play. The receiver tries to stack the cornerback, but the quarterback will read the receiver’s leverage and throw him open. If the receiver has a step on the defender, the quarterback puts the ball in front of him. If the defender is even with the receiver, the quarterback throws the back shoulder and the receiver has to adjust.
This is what was confusing about Burrow. He would have receivers that appeared to have a step on the defender, but he would still throw the back shoulder. Not only would he do it on the outside vertical routes, he would do it on routes up the seam.
As it turns out, there is another way of looking at back shoulder throws, and it came up on ESPN’s CFP Coaches Film Room Preview.
This show looked at film of both teams prior to the game and featured former Ohio State co-defensive coordinator and new Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley and Oklahoma State’s head coach (and mullet enthusiast) Mike Gundy.
The two discussed the importance of a defense staying on top of vertical routes.
If the defense is not on top of these routes and the defender is forced to chase, the offense has the advantage because the defense is not looking for the ball. So the quarterback will throw the back shoulder because the receiver is looking and will be able to adjust much faster than the defensive back.
On top of that, offensive players generally get more work in practice with contested catches. Again, advantage goes to the offense.
So whereas with the method of thinking I mentioned above, a quarterback would look at a receiver with a step on a defender throw it deep and in stride, LSU’s thinking is to throw the ball somewhere that forces an adjustment from the receiver, because he will adjust faster and more effectively than the cornerback.
This is perfect for the Bengals. Outside of John Ross, the Bengals don’t have receivers who can separate deep. They do, however, have some excellent jump ball receivers in A.J. Green, Auden Tate, and Damion Willis.
It’s actually a much easier read for the quarterback. If he sees the back of the defender’s helmet, he knows to throw a jump ball and that his guy will likely win.
With the other method a receiver could have a step, but if the defender kept running with the vertical he may be able to get a hand in there and disrupt the pass. The defender knows where the ball is going, he just has to keep running and he has a shot unless he is absolutely smoked. The method LSU is using may lead to more catches, because the defender can’t adjust fast enough.
Obviously Burrow still completes deep ball in stride, so there must be a breaking point where the receiver has enough of an advantage that Burrow will lead him.
So, hopefully this will put to bed the concerns about Burrow’s lack of arm strength and instead demonstrate his ability to read a defense and place the ball perfectly on deep routes.